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What Does "Bleeding Edge" Mean?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “bleeding edge” is an English idiom for any development that is new or state-of-the-art but also carries a high level of risk. First used in the 1980s, the saying has a lot in common with the similar idioms "leading edge" and "cutting edge". Although most commonly used in reference to new technologies, the saying can also be used for new styles in the fine arts.

Bleeding edge probably originated as a pun on "leading edge". In aeronautics, leading edge is a technical term for the airfoil or propeller blade at the front of the plane, leading the movement of the plane. Metaphorically, the leading edge refers to the most recent development in a field. "Bleeding edge" comically alludes to a leading edge as a dangerous weapon.

Cutting edge also refers to a state-of-the-art development, although it does not carry the same idea of risk that bleeding edge does. The image is that of a knife, where the cutting edge is the useful side that leads every stroke. With the newer phrase "bleeding edge", the image is that of a bloody knife or sword, meaning the technology is useful, but dangerous.

Newly developed software in computers or phones and recently built technologies, such as 3D movie projectors, are the most common developments referred to by the idiom. When 3D projectors first became available, the very fact that they were new caused problems. Theaters were unsure if the public demand and amount of 3D capable movies would justify the original cost of installing the projectors, and manufacturers did not know how many would sell. The technology was impressive and new, but very risky.

Occasionally, "bleeding edge" can refer to the latest medical treatments, particularly for life-threatening illnesses. For mild diseases, no one wants to use an unproved drug. If tested treatments aren’t likely to make someone well, most patients are willing to try anything that might help.

New styles of literature, music, visual arts, and even architecture are also sometimes referred to as bleeding edge. With this type of new development, the risk lies in how the public and critics react to the work. The similar slang term “edgy” is much more common for these innovations. For example, a solar power sun dial building in Dezhou, China was innovative both in architecture and energy efficiency when it was opened in late 2009.

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